Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

“I see dead people—they don’t know they’re dead”: The confused dead in pop culture

Illustration for article titled “I see dead people—they don’t know they’re dead”: The confused dead in pop culture

The history of film and television is littered with dead people who don’t know they’ve passed on. In the upcoming Sundance Channel series The Returned, some residents of a French mountain town try to return to their homes, only to learn they’ve been dead for years. They aren’t ghosts, but they’re not zombies in the usual sense of the word, either. In advance of the series debut October 31 at 9 p.m. Eastern, we looked at some other confused dead people in pop culture.


The Sixth Sense (1999)
The confused: Dr. Malcolm Crowe, child psychologist
The situation: Crowe (Bruce Willis) takes on the case of a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) who seems to be experiencing delusions and hallucinations of dead people walking among the living. Crowe is skeptical at first, but comes to believe the kid is telling the truth.
The reveal: When he seems to have a tearful confrontation with his wife, Crowe is confused when she drops his wedding ring, which he thought was on his hand. A quick montage of flashbacks shows how he was a ghost the whole time, having been killed by the gunshot that viewers are led to believe only wounded him at the beginning of the film.

THE RETURNED Sundance Channel All New Thursdays 9pm, Premiering on Halloween

The Others (2001)
The confused: Grace Stewart, widow and mother of two young children
The situation: The children of Stewart (Nicole Kidman) have a disease that keeps them away from sunlight, and Stewart has a strict regimen to keep them safe during the day. When she hires new housekeepers to assist, some odd things start happening in their remote country house, which leads her to suspect the place is haunted. 
The reveal: After she grows suspicious of her new help, Stewart searches through their quarters to find a photo of the servants’ bodies—turns out they had died 50 years prior. The children then find a strange old woman in their room, but she’s a medium conducting a séance in an effort to rid the house of the spirits on behalf of its new owners. Stewart comes up to the room just as her daughter whispers something to the medium, and it becomes clear that Stewart had smothered her children then killed herself after she realized what she’d done. She and the children are the actual ghosts in the house, and the ghosts she thought she was hearing are the people who live there now.

Beetlejuice (1988)
The confused: Married couple Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis)
The situation: While running an errand in their small New England town, the two swerve their car to avoid hitting a dog and crash through the side of a covered bridge. Their car plunges into a stream below, but the Maitlands somehow make it back to their house unharmed.
The reveal: Or so it seems. Mirrors aren’t showing their reflections, and when they try to leave their house, they step into some weird, sandy world. Even more telling: There’s a book called Handbook For The Recently Deceased on the table. When neither Adam nor Barbara can remember how they got home after the crash, they realize they didn’t survive it.

American Horror Story season one (2011)
The confused: Violet Harmon, daughter of Ben and Vivien Harmon
The situation: The Harmons relocate to Los Angeles from Boston after some personal troubles there, and they take up residence in a beautiful/creepy, suspiciously inexpensive house. Paranormal activity begins immediately, including Violet (Tessa Farmiga) taking up with a young man named Tate (Evan Peters) who is actually a ghost of a school-shooter. 
The reveal: Violet learns what Tate did and takes her own life, but doesn’t realize she’s dead until much later, when Tate reveals her decomposing body beneath the house. At least when her parents join her in the afterlife, they understand they’ve died. Then they all have a nice Christmas!

Poltergeist (1982)
The confused: Various unnamed spirits haunting the Freeling house
The situation: The Freeling family starts noticing some strange occurrences in their home in a new subdivision, from the bizarre (chairs stacked in weird ways) to the nefarious (a clown doll coming to life). 
The reveal: When they seek the help of a medium, they learn that spirits that don’t realize they’ve died are haunting the house and, in one case, feeding off the energy of the family’s youngest daughter. Things get substantially worse from there.

Carnival Of Souls (1962)
The confused: Mary Henry
The situation: After surviving an accident where she ran her car off a bridge while drag racing, Henry (Candace Hilligoss) encounters strange figures who seem to be following her. Also, people occasionally behave as if she weren’t there—like she’s invisible.
The reveal: Henry finds herself drawn to an abandoned carnival pavilion on the shore of the Great Salt Lake, where she finds a group of the ghoulish people who’d been following her dancing. When she flees, they chase her down on the beach. The scene cuts to the authorities following her footprints, baffled by how they suddenly stop with no sign of how she got away. Then it cuts to workers dredging the river where Henry originally crashed her car. As they pull the car out of the water, they see the bodies of several women in it—including Henry’s.

Haunter (2013)
The confused: Lisa, a 15-year-old goth kid
The situation: Caught in something like a creepier, YA-leaning Groundhog Day, Lisa and her family relive the same day over and over—the day before her birthday, 1985—with little variation, until some odd things start happening. 
The reveal: Lisa suspects something’s going on, and her suspicions are confirmed when a guy posing as a repairman (Stephen McHattie) shows up at her house. He warns her not to tell her family that they’re dead—meaning she’s dead too.


Passengers (2008)
The confused: Claire Summers, psychotherapist
The situation: Summers (Anne Hathaway) is brought in to treat a small group of survivors from a plane crash. After she grows close to one of the passengers (Patrick Wilson), her patients begin to disappear. She theorizes the airline is targeting the survivors to cover up a mechanical failure.
The reveal: When Summers goes to visit her estranged sister, she encounters an airline official named Arkin (David Morse). He tells her everyone on the flight died, and when he leaves behind list of the deceased, Summers not only sees the names of everyone she treated, but also her own. And Arkin was the plane’s pilot.